As noted here and in other places ad nauseum over the last few days, it hasn't been a great week for the Pirates. They lost two games to the Cubs last week and they played some ugly games in Houston and the Cincinnati Reds just will not lose. Even though the Pirates entered play tonight tied for the National League's third best record, it was easy to see the fans getting restless. It's not that I thought things were starting to slip away, necessarily, just starting to wonder if they might be. That's just not a fun place to be.
Things quickly turned on their ear tonight; Travis Snider and Andrew McCutchen reached on back-to-back infield singles, Garrett Jones drew a walk, and Neil Walker launched his second career grand slam into the Chicago night to give the Pirates a 4-0 lead. That's how you start things against a pitcher like Casey Coleman when you're trying to bounce back from a 14-4 loss. Had I known that the Pirates only had one more run in them at that point, I might've been a little nervous. As things worked out, though, it was never going to be an issue with AJ Burnett on the mound.
On a few occasions this year, mostly against teams like the Cubs and Astros, I've watched AJ Burnett cruise through the early innings of a game and wondered if he had a no-hitter in him. When he's really locked in, he mows through lineups the way I imagine the young AJ Burnett must have (in 2002, Burnett had 12 wins and five of them were complete game shutouts; read that again and think about it because that's pretty shocking). On most of these nights, he hits a wall where he loses his command or loses some zip or the other team just figures him out. This happens to 35-year old pitchers. These are usually the nights that end with him taking two steps off of the mound at PNC Park looking like he's ready to stomp to the clubhouse in anger, except that a huge PNC Park crowd is ready to cheer him into the clubhouse like a conquering hero and as soon as he hears the crowd his anger breaks and he smiles and pumps his fist and instead of storming into the clubhouse he soaks everything in. In Pittsburgh, we don't care that the AJ Burnett of 2012 isn't quite the same as the AJ Burnett of 2002 or 2007 or 2008 because this 2012 AJ Burnett is exactly what the Pirates and Pittsburgh need.
Tonight, though, he didn't slow down. Nine pitches in the first, ten pitches in the second, 11 pitches in the third. A strikeout in each. He walked Anthony Rizzo in the fourth, but bounced right back with a strikeout. He got through the fifth inning on just 52 pitches. The sixth looked like maybe it would be the inning where he started to lose control of it all; he needed 22 pitches and he walked another hitter and he couldn't get a strikeout despite being ahead in the count twice. He came right back and sailed through the seventh on six pitches. The Cubs didn't have a hit to be found and for a brief moment it seemed like maybe it was actually going to happen.
It didn't, of course. In the eighth, Burnett got a groundout, but then he hit Darwin Barney in the helmet with a pitch and threw a bunch of curveballs in the dirt before striking out Luis Valbuena. It seemed like he was pressing, just a little bit. He started Adrian Cardenas off with another curve in the dirt before getting ahead 1-2, but he couldn't finish him off and Cardenas lined a single to right field to end the no-hit bid at 7 2/3 innings. From there, Burnett had no trouble finishing up his first shutout since 2006; he struck out David DeJesus to end the eighth and needed just nine pitches to set the Cubs down in order in the top of the ninth.
It's stating the blatantly obvious to say that both Burnett and Pirate fans really wanted Burnett to finish the no-hitter; Pittsburgh has really taken to Burnett in the last couple of months and Burnett seems intent on making his time with the Pirates as memorable as possible. It's really been something to watch. In the grand scheme of things, though, the presence that Burnett has on the mound and with the team is much bigger than anything that one Adrian Cardenas single can wipe out. As mentioned above, the Pirates went into tonight in a weird place. They hadn't played well, they shook the mixture of players on the team up quite a bit with their trades over the last week, and the very real pressure of a playoff race is starting to set in on a roster that's not used to dealing with anything like this before. None of this is new to AJ Burnett, though, and he stepped up and delivered his best performance in years time at the exact moment that the Pirates needed it.
When the Pirates traded for Burnett this winter, I figured they were getting a veteran presence that could eat some innings and turn in some good starts and prevent the rotation from crumbling over the final third of the season. He's gone so far beyond that by now that I almost feel selfish for having wanted the no-hitter, too.
Pat, I love this post. Yours is my favorite Pirates blog because I recognize something of myself in how you write about them - tenderness. I don't mean to get all maudlin but that's just how I feel about baseball in general, and the Buccos in particular. I get all verklempt at nostalgic jumbotron video montages and I genuinely LOVE this team. I appreciate you acknowledging what AJ Burnett means to the Pirates and what the Pirates and their fans mean to him. Because that's the story of the Pirates, and the story of baseball. From one baseball-loving scientist to another, thank you.
A stopper. A REAL stopper, like Carlton was. A guy who keeps a 2/3 game losing streak from becoming a 4/5/6 game losing streak. I know, you can only identify those guys looking back. But that's what AJ is to this team. He's the stopper.